It’s a recent trend in online folk horror to rapidly adapt those whispers from social media aggregates like Reddit, imageboards, and forums into short films and games. The Backrooms are a famous example, still palpable in the current zeitgeist, now blossoming in horror game jams or bespoke developer catalogues, such as PuppetCombo’s newly announced entry.
“If you’re not careful and you noclip out of reality in the wrong areas, you’ll end up in the Backrooms, where it’s nothing but the stink of old moist carpet, the madness of mono-yellow, the endless background noise of fluorescent lights at maximum hum-buzz, and approximately six hundred million square miles of randomly segmented empty rooms to be trapped in– Anonymous /x/ board user, source: Knowyourmeme.com
God save you if you hear something wandering around nearby, because it sure as hell has heard you”
The mythos of this horror locale is rooted in the myriad anxieties younger generations gather from the increasingly artificial world around them, with a twist of hauntology regarding isolation, in stark contrast to our era of highly interconnected infrastructure and constant social stimulus. Backrooms asks those who play it to take a disturbing step into a place no human voice or presence is meant, or normally able, to intentionally reach.
“Liminal spaces” is a term that gets thrown around often both in interactive media critique and arthouse game jam circles; rarely, however, is it exemplified so succinctly. Jam has managed not only to capture the terror of becoming dislodged in the transitive space between reality and the unseen world, but the numbness that comes follows from the phantom pain of atomization in today’s society. Empty corridors and forgotten hallways embody the trauma of seeing how the sausage is made, the cruel, desolate ambivalence that permeates forgotten structures like a stale moldy stench in the air. This smell of structural death serves as an immediate indicator that this place is no longer fit to serve as anything other than a monument to the absurdity of vestigial utility. The backrooms exist merely for their own sake: ethereal shavings, a plastic wrapper, detritus left over from a society flattening itself and stripping everything it uses of meaning; it is a husk, leftovers from the process of internationalization.
Likewise, it makes for thoughtful commentary on the meaning of derelict online or virtual spaces no longer occupied by their intended patrons, akin to a failed architectural utopia, or archaeology in the vein of projects like Arcosanti. What happens to the empty servers, lost levels, custom maps and other digital ruins that once were home to such strong emotional imprints, but are now left by the wayside? Only this cognitive archaeology can give us answers as we exhume the remains of exhausted vessels.
‘There is a need to accord space, time and place for liminal feeling… there are two mistakes which all individuals do: ‘we provide no ritual space at all in our lives…or we stay in it too long.‘
– Carl Jung Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book About Men (Dorset 1990)
Through a Jungian lens, The Backrooms are a representation of this liminal labrynth, a place used to transition among states of chaos within our psyche, hoping to find a way towards the exit (self-actualization) and that we do not come across the Minotaur. It is a theme explored with great detail in another indie horror entry, BlackThorn Media’s Caliban Below, which itself is a take on the eldritch stylings of HP Lovecraft. Jung’s remarks on over-prescription of the intermediate space alert us to the grave consequences of becoming locked within that permanent liminality that refuses to dissolve, a space of great intensity that turns into a psychological prison instead of providing traction for individuation. If one cannot find a way to navigate the maze and either avoid or confront their shadow, they risk wandering the maze of their inner psyche without closure or resolution.
Functionally and artistically, Jam’s Backrooms takes these concepts to an unprecedented standard of quality, adding varied environments beyond the original notion of a damp, empty office space. Gorgeous unpainted drywall and dusty tilework decorate the inner workings, delivered by a tasteful 16-bit color palette evocative of primitive rendering engines in a way that draws attention to the unseen skeleton of the already innately utilitarian environment. Occasionally, you will experience the sickly crumbling sound of peeling wallpaper, revealing some pathway behind the melting facade of previously sealed doorways. It’s this sense of changing spaces that gives the illusion of progress and a sense of life, the haunting intuition that the backrooms themselves are alive, rather than occupied by some otherworldy monstrous form stalking their hallways. The experience is accompanied by the dulcet tones of a lovely synth soundtrack, and by clever audio design for the throughout the piece, as demonstrated by your only companion for the duration, small audio tapes left here by some other traveler who had succumbed to their quest for escape.
The backrooms find a way to feast on psychic energy, the way a hardy shrimp does on sulfuric gasses released by volcanic vents on the ocean floor, or fungus that devours plastic. To quote Jurassic Park, “Life finds a way“, but you may find the results unpleasing. Nature has a nasty tendency to adapt to whatever circumstances are thrown its way, and there is no reason this wouldn’t also apply to the unknown, the primordial that occupies the fringes of reality and imagination.
Why don’t you see if you can find what you seek behind the rotten plaster and dusty woodwork of The Backrooms? You may be surprised by what you discover within their empty halls.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice